03/24/09 2:51 PM ET
Japan rode difficult road to Classic title
Champion's path to victory went through Korea, Cuba and U.S.
By Rhett Bollinger / MLB.com
It was one of the most memorable moments in the tournament's brief history, and one that Japan manager Tatsunori Hara will always remember. "I believe that the base hit is something that I will never forget," Hara said. "It's an image that will forever be imprinted in my mind." But it wasn't the only memorable moment for Japan on its way to a 7-2 record and second World Baseball Classic title. It was a difficult road for Japan, which played runner-up Korea five times in the tournament, winning the series, 3-2. Hara, however, pointed out that the difference in talent level between the two teams is minimal, and he gave credit to Korea for making the finals. "As you know, baseball wins and losses are just paper-thin differences, especially in this World Baseball Classic," he said. "The fact that the two Asian countries were able to play against each other in the finals is something that we and the Koreans can be proud of." The two teams set a Classic record by playing each other five times. They have squared off eight times in the two tournaments combined, with each team winning four games. But Hara isn't surprised that his team keeps facing Korea in important games. "I had the feeling that we were going to meet them a number of times," he said. "The fact that we actually did end up playing five times, the most number of times that you can play against any team, the fact that we were able to do that, it is something that I had a feeling we would do, but I am also surprised that we did." Korea wasn't the only difficult team that Japan faced, as it defeated Cuba twice, as well as the U.S. in the semifinals. Japan's two wins over Cuba, including the knockout victory in Round 2, were especially impressive, considering Cuba had made it to the finals of every major international tournament over the last 50 years.
Japan took the title behind Hisashi Iwakuma, who tossed six scoreless innings on his way to being named to the All-Tournament Team.But perhaps no victory was more important to Japan than its 9-4 victory over the U.S.
"I really respect American baseball, so the fact that we were able to play against the American team was wonderful," Hara said. "The fact that we won is something that even for the Japanese baseball world is something that will remain in history." Japan won the tournament with fundamental baseball, along with the best pitching staff in the tournament. Daisuke Matsuzaka won three games and won the Most Valuable Player Award, Iwakuma had a 1.35 ERA in four appearances and 22-year-old sensation Yu Darvish won two games with a 2.08 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 13 innings. Combined, the pitching staff compiled a mind-boggling team ERA of 1.71, and the offense did its part, too, averaging more than five runs a game despite the fact that 80 percent of the team's hits were singles. It was all part of Japan's commitment to fundamentals that even impressed the American players after their difficult loss on Sunday. "You know when you play Japan, they're going to play fundamentally sound baseball," Team USA second baseman Brian Roberts said. "They're going to do the little things, and you're going to have to go out there and beat them. And so when it comes to that, there's something for everyone to learn from." In four years, in the next World Baseball Classic, we'll see if the rest of the world learned from Japan, or if Japan will be the one teaching the lessons again on the way to another title.
Rhett Bollinger is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.